Vaccine makers are racing to develop the next wave of COVID-19 boosters as health officials prepare for an omicron-laden surge to hit the United States this fall.
As existing vaccines continue to offer protection against serious illness and death from COVID-19, health officials are hoping for a booster aimed at newer strains of coronavirus – specifically the BA subvariants of omicron . 4 and BA.5 — will offer enhanced protection starting this fall.
On Friday, July 29, the White House announced an agreement to secure 66 million doses of an improved COVID vaccine booster candidate from Moderna, which aims to provide better protection against new strains of coronavirus.
The government has also reached an agreement to purchase 105 million doses of a bivalent booster from Pfizer, with both deals requiring FDA clearance and CDC recommendation.
These bivalent boosters, which treat two virus strains at once, are expected to be available early this fall. The FDA initially expressed optimism for an October rollout, but The Washington Post reported Thursday that the Biden administration now expects vaccines to be available in September.
Either way, infectious disease specialists say an improved version of the vaccine was always the next step in gaining protection against an ever-evolving virus. This is because the original vaccine was designed to target the original strain, which has since undergone numerous mutations.
“The vaccines we have are first generation; they did a phenomenal job,” said Dr. Liam Sullivan, infectious disease specialist at Spectrum Health. “I don’t even want to imagine what it would be like without the vaccines. It would have been awful. They kept people out of the hospital; they kept people from dying; they were wildly successful, but they can also be improved.
Related: BA.5 variant could accelerate Michigan’s fall COVID surge
The latest increase in COVID cases worldwide has been linked to the latest omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5. The latter accounts for about 82% of cases in the United States and about 70% of sequence cases in Michigan.
BA.5 spreads more easily than previous strains of coronavirus. Health officials say it’s also best to evade prior immunity, opening the door to infection in people who have already contracted COVID-19 as recently as this year.
“Omicron, unlike some of the other variants, showed this innate ability to evade neutralizing antibodies,” Sullivan said. “But the good news is that these people are not severely infected. They catch a mild illness.
Moderna says its bivalent booster candidate, which is designed against both the original strain and the newer omicron variant, has been effective in clinical trials. The company said in late June that it plans to submit its data to regulators and prepare the supply in case it gets approval by August.
Meanwhile, Pfizer has developed two new booster candidates – a bivalent shot and one that targets only the omicron (monovalent). The company claims that both injections elicit an increased response against omicron BA.1 and, to a lesser extent, BA.4 and BA.5.
On Wednesday, Pfizer, along with its partner BioNTech, began testing its bivalent booster on 200 clinical participants between the ages of 18 and 55.
Each time the snaps are made available to the public, it’s possible that a new variant has settled in at that time. But Dr. Matthew Sims, director of infectious disease research at Beaumont Health, noted that a second-generation vaccine is likely to offer better protection against the next strain as well because it will likely have many of the same mutations as the vaccine. ‘omicron, and more.
“Like the vaccine we have now, by the time it was rolled out, the country had already moved to alpha, but it was still going strong because the alpha was pretty close to the original,” Sims said.
Michigan health officials said the rapid spread of BA.5 could bring the fall surge weeks earlier than originally expected. They have long called for another wave of cases as students return to school and social gatherings return indoors as temperatures drop.
The state recently saw its seven-day average for new daily COVID cases (2,369) hit its highest level since late May. Hospitalizations and deaths remain stable, but health officials are watching closely as they continue to urge vaccinations for those who need to get vaccinated.
As of Wednesday, nearly 63% of Michigan residents had received at least a first dose of the COVID vaccine, while only 35.2% had received a booster shot beyond their initial dose.
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